The Robinwood

Sharing brunch with a longtime client of The Robinwood Cafe on Centre Street.

I hope to use this blog to find the people who make JP such an uncommon place.  This is the first attempt.  I wasn't prepared with a tape recorder or a camera.  There was no interview for last names or facts.  Only a chance meeting and an hour to write.  

The polished chrome surfaces of Fetco and Astra coffee machines, dual waffle makers, and the flat grill reflect the noontime sun around the walls of the Robinwood Cafe.

They illuminate an ornate old cash register and photos of Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn in character. There is a carved wood sign on the wall advertising “Ralph Lucas: Nautical Optician.”

My view from the counter is of JP Oil—not Mobil or Shell—across Centre Street.

“Looks like we're not getting lunch today,” says Mary, who fills my coffee, to another waiter. “Maybe a couple of hours.”

There is no anxiety in her voice.

Mary and the rest of the four person staff quietly serve the six other customers plates of eggs and potatoes. They wave at several passersby peering through the windows. Someone orders a large pepperoni pizza. Only one man doesn't have time to take his coffee and muffin “for here.”

Surrounded by a college town quickly filling up with chain coffee shops specializing in drinks “to go,” it is a wonder time warps like Robinwood Cafe still exist.

As if to answer my question, Mary guides an elderly woman from the crosswalk and into the cafe. The woman greets the small staff using first names.

I order a third cup of coffee—two more than what I planned to drink—and ask to join her.

Della, just like the actor Della Reese, she tells me, came from west Ireland fifty years ago. She is now in her 80's and she lives across the street in an apartment operated by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“Sam? That sounds like a famous person's name. A president maybe?” she says to me in a thick accent. “You look like you should be in the movies.”

Della tells me she comes to Robinwood Cafe almost every day. Mary brings Della her usual plate of scrambled eggs and dark toast.

Seeing my Cape Cod sweatshirt, Della asks—more than once over the course of the meal—if I'm from there.

“Barnstable? I know it. Beautiful place,” she says each time. “I worked three years as a housekeeper in Hyannis for a Mrs. Moore. By the Kennedy's.”

Our conversation meanders from the Kennedy family to the merits of fall in New England over the gray climate of west Ireland. Maybe today she will watch joggers and fishermen at Jamaica Pond.

“World class place. I've seen Mayor Menino there twice,” Della says. “and Jeffrey Sanchez from the state house. Maura Hennigan, too.”

Della tells me that she likes Jeffrey Sanchez because “he isn't stuck up.”

She was not surprised by clerk of courts Maura Hennigan's recent election success.

“She's well liked, you can tell,” says Della. “She's down to earth.”

Maybe she will go to the pond after doing some errands in her apartment, she says to me.

First though, Della asks me to remind her to pay the check, which she had paid when I first joined her.

“Not many people in here today. But you know who else comes here?” asks Della. “The Boston Police. They sit up at the counter. And my doctor. He's well liked. And only right across the street.”

Over the course of half an hour, I come to trust Della's earnest judgment of character. She may not have a deep understanding of governance and she may repeat a conversation several times, but Della catches folks in their most honest moments—on a jog around the pond or halfway through a plate of hash browns—and does not seem to miss a beat.

I also now see why places like Robinwood Cafe can still exist:


Regulars combat the anonymity that accompanies bustling chain cafes and drive-thru windows. Two strangers decades apart in age can speak together without small talk.

Regulars transform restaurants and old haunts into public institutions, where police officers are forced meet the Della's they are sworn to protect.

Regulars are the local angle to every news story. For Della, history isn't about legislation or policy. It's about the character of the individuals who stand up to take it on.

And regulars will keep Robinwood Cafe open long into the future. If not for the company, then they will surely come for the blueberry muffins. Or pepperoni pizza.

Before I leave, I tell Della that we will hopefully meet again for brunch soon, so I can take her picture. She asks for my name again.

“Just like Sam Adams. That's how I'll remember it.”

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